Sad, But True

An interesting article by Gregory Clark on the post-crisis status of macroeconomics includes the following money quote:

Recently a group of economists affiliated with the Cato Institute ran an ad in The New York Times opposing the Obama‘s [sic] stimulus plan. As chair of my department, I tried to arrange a public debate between one of the signatories and a proponent of fiscal stimulus — thinking that would be a timely and lively session. But the signatory, a fully accredited university macroeconomist, declined the opportunity for public defense of his position on the grounds that “all I know on this issue I got from Greg Mankiw‘s blog; I really am not equipped to debate this with anyone.”

A fully accredited university macroeconomist is not equipped to debate the defining macroeconomic issue of our generation? Sad, but all too believable. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the necessary credentials.

(Hat tip: Felix Salmon)

Dan Lufkin

I think that macroeconomics may turn out to be like string-theory physics -- The more you know about it, the more you realize that you don't really know anything.



It's also sad that the department chair would publicize this story and embarrass the professor as well as his own department. Every empiricist knows (or should know) that anecdotal evidence is the weakest form of evidence, so it's not like supplying that information really proves any point other than that there exists AN economist who's ill-equipped to debate the stimulus. Is shedding light on this unsurprising fact worth embarrassing a professor in your department? I would think not.


This is freakonomics, in the other sense...

Jeff S.

Mankiw Rules


I would seriously challenge Gregory Clark's fact checking. His commentary "Almost no-one predicted the world wide downtown. Academic economists were confident that episodes like the Great Depression had been confined to the dust bins of history. There was indeed much recent debate about the sources of "The Great Moderation" in modern economies, the declining significance of business cycles" is horribly false.

Maybe he's just running in different circles than me, but I heard warnings for the previous 18 months at least. Googling 'real estate bubble' gives heightened results dating well back in to 2005.


Nowhere in the article does it say that the economist in question was in his own department. Why'd you say he was?

And that any university macroeconomist would have such little knowledge of macroeconomics is obviously shocking!


Be careful. Equiped and qualified are very different. Although he shouldn't have signed based on what I've just read, who is "equiped"? I would have expected an equiped person to have read and analyzed the Stim package, and read it more than twice. I'm not sure anyone has done it - including those who voted for it. I'd happily debate and argue nobody is in a position to have a clue about it. Fakers


Sad, but not true. Wouldn't read too much into this. If he was indeed a "fully accredited macroeconomist" this phrasing could just mean that the debate reached a point where the theoretical arguments are clear to all, but due to the lack of evidence no useful conclusions could be made. You could run a roulette, and defend any resulting number as a theoretically sensible multiplier. Joining a discussion in this environment would make you indistinguishable from all those bozos on TV and the attention junkie academic types that they invite.

To be sure, it is a problem of macroeconomics, but it doesn't say much about the quality/agency problems among macroeconomists. Its like blaming NASA for not knowing whether there is life on other planets -- THEY JUST DON'T KNOW. THEY AIN'T GOT THE DATA. All they can do for now is pull more theories out of you know where, which is more than we can say about the rest of the population, so it is an improvement.

In other words, he could be just cynical, saying that another theory debate will be not much more fruitful than a blogpost. That's what I would do, especially knowing that the person inviting me is writing silly articles, like the one described here. Sometimes one needs to use obscure excuses to get rid of certain social interactions.



I think nothing gives journalists/bloggers greater pleasure than employing the "[sic]" tag on someone else's writing to show how much smarter the journalist is than the original writer...or how unforgiving...or to flex their "I never make a typo" muscle...or to say "look, they have a stupid idea, AND they can't use their keyboard"...or because they love stoking their own egos when no one really cares...



Because there was only one signatory from UC-Davis, and that professor is a full professor who works in macro. So my subjective probability that it was him is quite high (at least 95%). Of course, it could have been a professor from another school, but if it were, it seems like he or she would use the inconvenience of traveling to Davis or some other excuse instead of admitting ignorance.


Ironically, Mankiw is for stimulus, just not the way it's structured in the current legislation. The Cato Institute would almost certainly oppose Mankiw's stimulus plan as well.


I guess that a lifelong university career does not really give you a precise idea of what's going on. All the models and stuff will simply give you a better gut feeling than other people and therefore I would still take the signature of this professor seriously.


Forget macroeconomics, what does it say about our academic culture in general?

You're a professor, you sign your name to a position piece, and then you claim to be unable to defend your position?


Doesn't the following seem like a far more plausible explanation?
The signatory understands at least the broad brushstrokes of the stimulus plan and could competently argue his position. However, he either (a) dislikes the professor who tried to arrange the debate, (b) dislikes the person he was to debate, (c) dislikes verbal debates in general, or (d) simply had something better to do. Not wanting to admit his real reason, he blew off the request with an obviously facetious answer.
The parties are advised to chill.


In my post above, I forgot one other step: the offended professor spitefully posts the signatory's comments out of their given context.


It's always been the case that in every profession there are those who can get the job done and those who can also serve as spokesmen to the wider community.

In the New Testament era, the terms "bishop" and "elder" (=pastor) were interchangeable. It was only in the succeeding decades and centuries that some pastors distinguished themselves through their ability to refute heretics and became bishops in more of the modern sense of the word.

Jeremy H.

Re: Clark's lack of fact-checking: see the comment on the original article from Michele Boldrin about his non-existent-"well in excess of $500,000"-salary.


I love some of the comments.

It's good to know that the pins used in the past (as in How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?) are finding good use today in Macroeconomics Departments.

Explains many things.


Written output, yours or something that you sign your name to, is under pretty strict control by you (though of course your words can be quoted (or misquoted) out of context). A public debate, even on a topic on which you have an appreciable level of expertise, puts you at great risk of accidentally saying something silly or inept. (And if the issue is one on which passions run high, a misstep will be seized upon by your opponents, perhaps to paint you as not just wrong, but as evil.) It seems perfectly reasonable to avoid public debates, even if you would willingly engage in written ones. (I'm surprised at how many people speak with reporters, given that the same or worse risks appear. E-mail exchanges are much safer.)


@Jared #2: "...there exists AN economist who's ill-equipped to debate the stimulus."

True, although in this case, that economist also apparently signed his name to a statement opposed to the stimulus, but was unable to back that position up and apparently learned everything he knew about it from a blog.